Let’s Talk About the ‘Silent Epidemic’
September Is Suicide Awareness Month
By Tyler Hayden | Published September 5, 2019
Despite the steady erosion of stigmas around mental health, one topic of conversation remains uncomfortably taboo. The concept of suicide is so upsetting and, for many people, so mysterious and forbidden that it’s avoided, pushed aside, relegated to the dark corners of willfull negligence.
There’s a reason it’s called the “silent epidemic.” Between 2001 and 2017, incidents of suicide increased 31 percent in the United States across all ages, genders, and ethnicities. In 2017, the last full year of national data, it claimed the lives of 47,173 Americans at more than twice the rate of homicides. It was the leading cause of death among men age 65 and older and the second leading cause of death among anyone between the ages of 10 and 34.
Here in Santa Barbara County, the suicide rate peaked in 2016 with 71 incidents. Contributing to that figure was a cluster among middle school and high school students, including 64 attempts. Since then, the numbers have gone down, thanks in large part to a concerted effort by the county’s Department of Behavioral Wellness and school district officials. Students are now provided suicide awareness and prevention curriculum and are regularly screened for warning signs. But the overall problem remains.
Community organizations like the Glendon Association and the Santa Barbara Psychological Association continue to bang the drum on the issue, pushing for more education and discussion, not only among the public but also among local doctors, as delays in specialized mental-health treatment can be deadly. Recent national research shows that 45 percent of people who died by suicide had visited their primary care physician in the month prior. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is now moving forward with a proposal to create a three-digit, nationwide suicide prevention hotline, designated 988.
Dr. Lisa Firestone with the Glendon Association acknowledged how jarring it can be to learn that a friend or family member is thinking about taking their life. “It’s hard to think that someone who matters to you would consider killing themselves,” she said. “It can come out of the blue.” That’s why it’s so important to start the conversation now, she said. Learn about the warning signs, get access to the tools to help someone through a crisis, and above all, be willing to talk and listen. Be there for someone. Let them know they’re not alone. “When pain outweighs connectedness, that’s when suicide happens,” she said.
Dr. Winifred Lender, president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association, encouraged parents to speak to their kids about suicide just as they would about other difficult topics, such as sex and drugs. “The more we talk about it, and the sooner we talk about it, the easier it becomes,” she said. She dispelled the myth that bringing up the topic might encourage an attempt. “It’s simply not the case,” she said, “if you talk about it in the context of support, care, and resources.”
Lender said Santa Barbara has no shortage of help options, but spreading the word is paramount. “We do have good resources here,” she said, “we just need to make people more aware of them and how to access them.”
See page 27 for a list of resources and upcoming Suicide Awareness Month events, including the Out of the Darkness walk. We spoke with two of the event’s speakers — George Short, a loss survivor, and Bonnie Beedles, an attempt survivor.
The Dangers of Denial
George Short was born George Horowitz, named after his father’s twin brother, who was killed fighting in World War II. He had in many ways a quintessential New York City boyhood, splitting his days between school, afternoons in the park playing handball, and dinners with his family in a six-story apartment building.
Short was a smart kid. He skipped second grade and would have kept on skipping grades if it wasn’t for that day in early spring when he was 8 years old. Short’s friend invited him over after school, which wasn’t out of the ordinary, but then he invited him to dinner, and then to spend the night. “I never stayed at anybody’s house during the school week,” Short recalled. “Ever.”
The next day, everyone was especially nice to him — his classmates, the teachers, and the principal all gave him big smiles and wanted to know how he was doing. What the heck is going on? Short wondered. When he arrived back to his apartment, it was full of people. His mother sat him down. “Your father’s not coming home anymore,” she said.
“What do you mean he’s not coming home?” Short asked. “What are you talking about?”
“He’s not going to be around anymore,” his mother said. “Your father died.”
Short remembers his vision at that moment of the couch he was sitting on and the venetian blinds behind it suddenly going dark. He has a vague recollection of his mother explaining that his father had had a heart attack. In reality, he’d died by suicide. Short thinks maybe his family’s Jewish faith prevented his mother from admitting what had really happened. “Or maybe she just didn’t know how to explain it to an 8-year-old kid,” he said.
Soon thereafter, Short’s family picked up and moved to California, to a little town east of San Diego called Lemon Grove, which was predominantly populated by conservative Christians. Short was out of place. He was miserable. But life went on, and his mother eventually married another man, Don Short, who officially adopted George and his sister. Stepfather and stepson never got along, however. George’s mother sat him down again. “I know you’re having a hard time accepting your stepfather as your new father,” she told him. “So I think it’s really important for you to know the circumstances of your father’s death.”
George, now 15, went ballistic when he learned the truth. “Screaming, running around the house, literally losing it and breaking things,” he said. “Anything in my way, I broke.” But then, the fog lifted. “It was like, all of the sudden, something made sense,” he said. “People had been keeping something from me, lying to me, afraid of … all of this stuff.”
Short felt whole again. He settled into his new life on the West Coast, making friends, meeting girls, and writing for the school newspaper. In college, he majored in sociology and read a book about suicide by Jewish sociologist Émile Durkheim. He later wrote a short story about a small town in Iowa where a young girl kills herself.
By 26, Short had finished law school, gotten married, and was working for a respected firm, but he was unhappy. It was only through intensive therapy with Dr. Robert Firestone — the father of Dr. Lisa Firestone, Director of Research and Education for Santa Barbara’s Glendon Association — that he began to untangle the repressed memories of his father’s suicide and other traumas from his past. The breakthroughs were painful but necessary to overcoming the distance Short had put between himself and his own feelings. “I had numbed myself for so long, and it felt so good to just get it out of me,” he said.
Short went on to remarry and raise two successful kids, and he is now an attorney and shareholder with the well-known Santa Barbara firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. He’s active on a number of nonprofit boards, including the Glendon Association’s. Short recognizes that coming to terms with his father’s suicide will be a lifelong work in progress, but he hopes his story will serve as a cautionary tale against simply avoiding the topic and burying the pain. It never works.
“To me, this is what the Out of the Darkness walk means,” he said. “Bring it out, talk about it, be open about it. If you’re keeping something in, if you’ve got a secret, it’s almost like you can’t breathe. It’s like the difference between having pneumonia and being out in the open air. The open fresh air.”
It’s Never Too Late
Bonnie Beedles is living proof that no matter how hopeless life may feel — and for a time, hers felt utterly desperate — it can always get better. It can always turn around.
Beedles, 56, grew up in Santa Barbara and wrestled with depression throughout her teenage years. “I held extremely negative views of myself and my own worth,” she said, perceptions that were reinforced by a verbally abusive stepfather. Alcohol and cannabis began as an escape but became an addiction. “I was also struggling with what I believed at the time was the ‘shameful’ secret of being gay,” she said. “I thought it was a terrible defect and that I was doomed to a life of loneliness, whether I was open about it or tried to deny it.”
At 18, Beedles tried to kill herself, and over the next three years, she made multiple other attempts. She was held involuntarily at the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility on several occasions and had repeated stays in Cottage Hospital’s psych ward. She saw a therapist who prescribed her antidepressants, but they didn’t work. Her doctors eventually recommended she undergo electroconvulsive therapy. “Other than wiping out my memory for a month, the treatment didn’t seem to help,” she said. Her last suicide attempt was the most serious. An overdose of pills put her in a coma for a week.
After that, Beedles changed course. “Obviously, suicide wasn’t working the way I wanted it to,” she said. Approaching her misery from another angle, as she described it, Beedles entered into an alcohol recovery program, “which gave me the mental clarity to start taking more positive actions.” She enrolled in Santa Barbara City College and graduated from UCLA. “I did well,” she said. “I used to think I had to feel confident before I could go out and do worthwhile things, but I learned that it’s the other way around — doing worthwhile things is what makes me feel valuable.”
Beedles’s depression never went away, but she’s figured out how to manage it. “I’ve built a good life for myself with love, support, and accomplishments,” she said. “I’ve continued therapy on and off through the years, I don’t drink or get high, and I found the right medications.” Beedles has retired from a career in education, mostly managing programs for kids facing socio-economic challenges, and now works as an artist. She also volunteers as a tutor and mentor, tends to her garden, and hangs out with her “people and pet family.”
Beedles said she’s learned a lot from her close brushes with suicide, especially that it’s a waste. “My life after [my attempts] demonstrates that,” she said. “The bottom line is that things change. I thought back then that I’d always feel as bad as I did. I’d lost hope and just knew I’d never get it back. But things change — sometimes we change them, sometimes they just happen.”
It’s hard to know how to help someone on the edge, Beedles admitted. “There are all kinds of rational arguments against the irrational beliefs people have about themselves and their circumstances,” she said, “but those types of feelings don’t always respond to reason.” Unless someone explicitly asks for advice, instead “listen, understand, empathize, and ask questions,” Beedles suggested. “Everyone’s situation is different, and there are no magic words, but approaching anyone in pain with ears open and mouth closed is a good start.”
September Events and Evergreen Info
September is Suicide Prevention Month. Here are four upcoming Santa Barbara area events.
• Out of the Darkness Suicide Prevention Walk: September 8, 8:30am-12pm, Leadbetter Beach, Santa Barbara
• World Suicide Prevention Day Candlelight Vigil: September 10, 7-8pm, the Seal Fountain, 850 Linden Ave, Carpinteria
• Suicide Prevention Workshop with Dr. Lisa Firestone: September 14, 8:30am-4pm, Crane Country Day School, 1795 San Leandro Lane, Montecito (Register at sbcpa.org)
• An Evening with Kevin Hines, Golden Gate Bridge Suicide Attempt Survivor: September 16, 6-8pm, Marjorie Luke Theatre, 721 E. Cota Street, Santa Barbara (Register at eventbrite.com)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 1-800-273-TALK (8255) / suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Contact them if you’re in distress or worried about someone; they will help you or the suicidal person.
After Suicide Support
|ACCESS/CARES Mobile Crisis Team
SAFTY Mobile Crisis Team for Youth (under 21)
Cottage Hospital Emergency Psychiatric Services
Crisis Text Line
741741 (text the word “CONNECT”)
|Hospice of Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara Response Network
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
|Trevor Project (LGBTQ)
Veterans Crisis Line — veteranscrisisline.net
My3 Safety Plan App
How You Can Help Prevent Suicide
Produced by the Glendon Association and PsychAlive.org
The first step is knowing what to look for:
• Disturbed sleep patterns
• Anxiety, agitation
• Irritability, rage
• Feeling like they don’t belong
• Feeling trapped
• Feeling they are a burden to others
• Personal hopelessness
• Loss of interest in favorite activities
• Preparing for suicide
Let them know you are concerned. Tell them that you are there to help.
Ask them if they are thinking about suicide. (Talking about suicide will not make them take action.) Be direct: How have you been coping with what’s been happening in your life? Have you thought about suicide? Have you thought about how you would do it?
Keep them safe. Stay with them.
Take action to get help. Tell them there are other options than suicide. Don’t assume they will get better or seek help on their own.
Guide them toward professional support. Help them make an appointment with a mental-health professional or offer to take them. If they are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.
The Dos and Don’ts
|• Be aware. Learn the warning signs.
• Get involved. Make yourself available. Show interest
• Be direct. And be willing to listen
• Be non-judgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide
is right or wrong or whether feelings are good or bad.
• Offer empathy. Not sympathy.
• Offer empathy. Not sympathy.
• Offer hope. Offer alternatives and help them take action.
|• Don’t ask why. This encourages defensiveness.
• Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you.
• Don’t lecture. Don’t speechify about the value of life.
• Don’t challenge. Don’t dare him or her to do it.
• Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.